Scholar raises profile of life and literature of little-known island nation

Situated in the southwest Indian Ocean, the tiny island nation of Mauritius is the only country in Africa where Hinduism is the most dominant religion. It has also been ranked by the Ibrahim Index of African Governance as the best governed country in Africa five years running, and is home to 1.3 million people, predominantly representing French, African, Creole, Indian and Chinese backgrounds.

Although its land mass is only about 1.5 times that of Los Angeles, it packs a real punch when it comes to the creation of art, literature, music and culture, said Françoise Lionnet, a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and director of the African Studies Center, one of nearly 30 centers and programs dedicated to world regions and global issues at the UCLA International Institute.
LionnetSadly, most Americans remain unaware of this jewel in the sea, said Lionnet, who has been working to change this. She's also making her work more accessible to critics and scholars in Mauritius.

Her latest books, "The Known and the Uncertain: Creole Cosmopolitans" and "Writing Women and Critical Dialogues: Subjectivity, Gender and Irony" were released in July. They are also recognized by their French titles, "Le su et l’incertain: Cosmopolitiques créoles de l’océan Indien" and "Ecritures féminines et dialogues critiques," respectively. The official language of Mauritius is English, a remnant of the English colonial era, but everyone speaks French or Kreol in their daily interactions, said Lionnet.

Published in Mauritius, with English and French sections in each, the books are a labor of love for Lionnet. She was recently honored by the Academic Senate as one of two scholars chosen to deliver UCLA’s Faculty Research Lectures in the coming academic year.

"When your work is based in that part of the world, but you work in the U.S., your scholarship is not very visible," Lionnet said, adding that the cost to publish books can be substantial, especially when using university presses. Shipping costs alone can be a major roadblock for local academics and scholars.
"Being able to publish in Mauritius was important for me because it was a chance to actually put my work in front of people who know best what I’m talking about. If I’m going to get constructive or useful reactions, I need to get it from there more so than from my colleagues in the U.S."

Her decision to publish English- and French-language sections in each book also made her decision to publish there an easy one. Publishers in Mauritius, which is fundamentally a multilingual nation, are quite comfortable with this, whereas American publishers are not, she said.

"In the U.S., it wouldn’t happen. They’re either French- or English-language publishers," she said, adding that they would be concerned that including two languages in a book would limit the market and hamper sales.

So far, response to the two books has been great, she said. The launch, which was held at the French Institute of Mauritius, was met with huge fanfare. Lionnet was featured this month in a 3,200-word article printed in Le Mauricien, a French-language daily newspaper that has been published on the island for more than a century.

Her books, which now total six, with a seventh under contract with Stanford University Press, also serve as a conduit to engage American audiences with life and literature in Mauritius, which remains largely "invisible" to them, along with other nations in the Indian Ocean.  

"The Indian Ocean seems very far away, and people have very few notions of what the history of that region is about. For me, it is important to continue to remind people that it does exist, that it has a long and interesting history, and nowadays, the Indian Ocean is taking on greater strategic and political importance in the United States with the rise of China and India."